Why using early childhood data matters
Australia has made tremendous progress in building a better early childhood education and care (ECEC) system to serve all Australian children and families. According to the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC), the majority of children were developmentally on track in 2021. Yet too many children are still developmentally vulnerable when they start school. Developmental vulnerability in the AEDC has increased across 4 out of 5 domains, and inequalities in outcomes according to children’s family backgrounds still persist. Too little is known about what kinds of ECEC experiences can lift learning and development outcomes. Evidence is needed about what works for all children, and how to ‘shift the dial’ for the most vulnerable. Clearly, we can do more as a system to turn these trajectories around.
Substantial data already exists about ECEC services in Australia, including access, participation and quality. Large-scale data sets are held by governments (state and federal), research organisations, and sometimes by ECEC providers themselves. Yet these data are not fully utilised to investigate what makes the most difference for children’s learning and development.
Better insights from large-scale data can help providers, peak bodies, policymakers, teachers and educators tell a powerful story about what works for children, what impact quality ECEC is making, and what conditions need to be in place to deliver on the promise of a strong start in life for every child. Policymakers and sector leaders agree that the top priority is understanding how ECEC can better serve children who are vulnerable or disadvantaged. This includes answers to the questions below.
- How are ECEC experiences contributing to children’s outcomes? What difference does ECEC quality make?
- How do children’s ECEC experiences and outcomes vary by cohort? What can the data reveal about the strengths of different children, families and communities, that could inform how support is directed?
- What trends in outcomes can be observed over time and how might these relate to changing conditions (e.g. the COVID-19 pandemic, the introduction of the National Quality Standard (NQS)?
- What are the patterns of children’s participation in ECEC?
- Who is missing out on access to quality services?
This scoping report provides an initial step towards answering these questions. It maps the existing ECEC data landscape in Australia, and identifies opportunities for data to be better used to support children’s learning and development. It builds on a substantial body of work already underway across governments and research in improving ECEC data use, which is continuing to evolve as the data architecture becomes more sophisticated. This scoping report signals promising projects, as well as enduring gaps that need to be addressed.
International contexts show what may be possible if Australia can improve how it uses large-scale data to inform policy and practice. Much of the evidence used to inform ECEC policy in Australia is currently drawn from large-scale international studies that connect participation in quality ECEC services to children’s short- and long-term learning and development outcomes. By making better use of ECEC data, Australia can build a stronger homegrown evidence base to inform the work of teachers and educators across our diverse services and communities.
This report aims to guide and catalyse further work towards this long-term vision, including by the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) and its partners across the ECEC sector, policy and research.
Priorities for better ECEC data use
There is strong appetite across ECEC stakeholders for Australia to do more with data. AERO’s consultations with policymakers and sector leaders revealed a high level of agreement about the importance of storytelling through large-scale data, the value of greater collaboration between the sector and policymakers, and the need for support for the sector to analyse and apply data insights to improve service and system support for priority cohorts. Our specific findings are listed below.
- Better insights from existing ECEC data assets need to be accessible, for policymakers and sector leaders to use in their work. Sector leaders and policymakers alike invest considerable resources in accessing data and extracting insights, but are limited in their capacity to gain a comprehensive overview across the entire ECEC system. A better ECEC data architecture, with insights shared across all stakeholders, would improve efficiency and effectiveness in how the ECEC system works.
- Insights from data must be informed by understanding of the sector. Sector leaders in particular reported concern about the misuse of data in public debate, and called for broad dissemination of guidance on generating and applying credible data insights in policy discussions. This reflects the complexity of the ECEC sector, and the need for any insights from data to be accompanied by explanation of their context (for example, patterns in data may differ across different ECEC service types).
- Sector leaders and policymakers have a shared vision for better data. Shared aspirations for a better Australian ECEC data architecture include:
- data on children’s learning and development outcomes and the factors that enable their learning and development
- linkage of data on children’s ECEC experiences with data on health, wellbeing and family services
- longitudinal data linking children’s early experiences with later outcomes.
- Greater collaboration is needed between governments and the sector. Sector representatives expressed a strong interest in, and appreciation of, data efforts at government level (especially in relation to children who are vulnerable or disadvantaged), and greater collaboration to connect system insights with insights from practice. This could include opportunities for ECEC organisations and governments to co-create data collection instruments that are relevant and useful for the sector. It may also involve working with communities, to ensure ECEC data reflects their priorities.
- Data collection and analysis must be aligned across ECEC initiatives. Representatives from several jurisdictions indicated that any proposed improvements to early childhood data architecture should align with the Preschool Reform Funding Agreement and any related reforms. Sector leaders agreed that alignment between data initiatives is essential for reducing the data collection burden on the sector, and ensuring data are used well.
Current state of ECEC data use
To address the priorities above, it is first necessary to understand the current ECEC data landscape in Australia. This section canvasses the key large-scale data sets most relevant to ECEC, and existing work for linking and analysing them.
Existing large-scale data sets
The Australian ECEC data landscape includes a number of valuable large-scale, regularly updated data sets that can be used to explore the relationship between ECEC experiences, their quality, and children’s learning and development outcomes. AERO’s audit of existing data sets identified the following as most relevant to this goal:
- Child Care Subsidy System (CCSS)
- National Early Childhood Education and Care Collection
- NQS data.
A large body of data also exists for other services that support children’s learning and development, including allied health, child protection and community services. This data can provide a fuller picture of the experiences and services that make a difference in the crucial early years, especially for vulnerable children.
Research organisations also hold significant longitudinal data that contribute vital causal evidence about the experiences that contribute to children’s outcomes long-term. These important studies include E4Kids, the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, and the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children.
Data integration and infrastructure efforts
Analysis of a single large-scale data set can be further enhanced by data linkage. Children’s early learning and development are shaped by many factors, including family and kin, communities, services, environments and policies. Linkage approaches integrate data from a range of sources, to better reflect the reality of children’s experiences across ECEC and other contexts.
Promising early childhood data integration and linkage efforts include those below.
- The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Multi-Agency Data Integration Project (MADIP) is an important effort to make continually updated, accessible, linked data assets available to researchers. Within MADIP, the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment’s (DESE) First Five Years enduring data asset aims to build a comprehensive picture of early childhood development in Australia, positioning better data about children as a key component of the long-term National Data Infrastructure Strategy.
- The Australian Government’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) is funding the development of a national Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Research Data Commons. The Commons will integrate existing data infrastructure and help institutions to govern, share and link data ethically, enhancing research capacity in education and a range of other fields.
- The National Child Health and Development Atlas (‘The Atlas’) is a proof-of-concept project (scheduled for completion in June 2023). It aims to establish a public, online interface or ‘dashboard’ presenting metrics on the health and development of children nationwide. The Atlas is intended for public use, including by communities, local governments, social services providers and nonprofits. The project is supported by a range of research and government agencies.
- At state and territory level, several jurisdictions have also pursued large-scale efforts to connect data on early childhood development, to better understand how well ECEC and related services are supporting children and families; such as the South Australian Early Childhood Data Project.
- Linkage of existing large-scale data is already yielding insights into the enablers of children’s learning and development. For example, analysis linking longitudinal data from the Effective Early Educational Experiences (E4Kids) study with National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) data found that emotional support for children in ECEC was associated with better reading, writing and numeracy skills at age 8 (Thorpe and Staton 2016).
Measurement and reporting frameworks
Measurement and reporting frameworks provide an alternative way to analyse early learning and development across multiple data sets, even if the data sets are not formally linked for analysis. This is especially important for monitoring progress for children identified as vulnerable or disadvantaged, whose circumstances are best understood by examining multiple factors simultaneously. They are also useful for monitoring change over time, recognising that change in outcomes may require coordinated change across multiple contributing indicators.
Over time, a number of projects have aimed to establish shared frameworks for tracking and reporting children’s progress against a range of indicators nationally. These are outlined below.
- Early Childhood Development (ECD) Outcomes Framework (2011, 2014) was an indicator-based reporting framework that was developed under the National Early Childhood Development Strategy to measure progress toward the Strategy’s 2020 goals.
- The Nest is a framework for children and young people aged 0-24 years that uses six interconnected domains of wellbeing, and underpins the Report Card: The Wellbeing of Young Australians (last updated 2018).
- Enhancing measurement of child wellbeing (AIHW 2019) is a discussion paper exploring opportunities for improving Australia’s national reporting of children’s wellbeing.
- Australia’s children is a report series (last updated 2022) that uses the seven domains of the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare (AIHW) ‘people-centred data model’ to examine the latest data related to the Children’s Headline Indicators, a set of 19 indicators associated with children’s health, development and wellbeing.
- Australian Children’s Wellbeing Index provides a snapshot of how children are faring according to the domains of The Nest and UNICEF Australia’s five goals for children.
More can be done to improve data integration and infrastructure
Despite the significant efforts above, more can be done to ensure that ECEC data are collected, shared and analysed as effectively as possible. AERO’s consultations with ECEC sector leaders, policymakers and researchers found that many basic questions still cannot be answered.
The scenarios below illustrate the importance of linked data in understanding how ECEC and other services can support children and families, especially those who are vulnerable or disadvantaged. They are based on real-life scenarios identified in AERO’s consultations (adapted for confidentiality reasons).
Scenarios like these clearly signal the potential for ECEC data to be better connected, and to be used more purposefully to explore the interrelated factors that affect children’s learning and development. Barriers to data-sharing and analysis can best be overcome by a focus on all stakeholders’ shared interest in answering these questions, and commitment to doing better for all children.
The remainder of this report explores specific topics that could be explored through better-connected ECEC data, and more purposeful analysis driven by priorities of and for children, families and communities. Coordinating efforts across these topic areas will help shed light on the scenarios above, and many others.
Opportunities for data analysis
This section explores opportunities for using large-scale data to answer research questions where existing evidence in the Australian context remains limited. It provides examples of how answering these questions could support policymakers’ and providers’ goals; outlines existing data sets that could provide insights; and discusses associated challenges and opportunities for improving our understanding of what works for children in terms of ECEC provision.
01 Understanding what ECEC experiences make a difference to children’s outcomes
Understanding the relationships between children’s experiences in ECEC settings and their learning and development is at the core of ensuring that the ECEC sector works for all children. We need to get better at linking children’s experiences in ECEC and their subsequent outcomes in nuanced, contextualised ways that take account of the many factors that influence children’s development. This will help us understand how well the system is serving children (especially those identified as vulnerable and disadvantaged), the conditions under which children do well, and where to direct further support. It is also key to demonstrating the value of public investment in ECEC.
02 Understanding how experiences of ECEC vary by cohort
Building on the questions above, there is an opportunity to disaggregate the data to explore what is working well for priority cohorts, in a way that focuses on their strengths and is closely connected to communities’ own priorities. The ECPG’s Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Children (VDC) Subgroup, chaired by DESE and comprising AERO, ACECQA and representatives from all state and territory departments of education, is working together to build the evidence base for high-impact programs and initiatives for vulnerable cohorts and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
03 Understanding patterns of participation
Understanding patterns of children’s ECEC participation is essential for exploring the relationship between ECEC and children’s outcomes. Longitudinal research has found stronger cognitive gains among Australian children who attended ECEC programs from infant/toddler age compared with their peers who attended preschool only. The study also found that greater hours of ECEC per week was also associated with better outcomes (Coley et al. 2015). Further work is required to understand how variations in ECEC quality, service type and hours/weeks of participation affect these relationships. It is also important to understand how these relationships might vary for different age groups, cohorts and communities, and what is required to ensure that all children can access ECEC services.
04 Understanding workforce supply, demand and development
Workforce development is the heart of quality ECEC, as well as the ongoing viability and accessibility of ECEC services. The National Children’s Education and Care Workforce Strategy (ACECQA 2021) will mobilise stakeholders to advance a range of actions toward professional recognition, attraction and retention, leadership capability, wellbeing, qualifications and career pathways. These activities must be informed by data and evidence, both to achieve long-term goals for workforce development, and to ensure timely, focused responses to the immediate workforce challenges affecting ECEC services.
05 Understanding provision, access and quality
If children are to benefit from ECEC, both access and quality need to improve in tandem. Exploring the relationship between the geographic spread of ECEC services and SES will shed further light on equity in ECEC provision and children’s experiences. Such analysis could also support providers and governments to understand where unmet demand may exist for quality services, and where services could collaborate to meet the needs of their communities.
06 Understanding how services can stack to deliver better outcomes
Achieving better outcomes for children cannot be done by ECEC alone; it requires the collaboration of multiple professionals and a range of services and supports around the child and their family.
Working together to create change
The early years are a critical period for a child’s learning and development, during which the right support can shape their long-term life trajectory. Seizing that precious opportunity requires information on which children have access to quality ECEC, and how well services are supporting children across differences in ability, language, culture, location and wealth.
This scoping report has described the role that large-scale integrated data can play in ensuring that Australia’s ECEC system delivers the best possible support to all children, especially those identified as vulnerable or disadvantaged. The enthusiasm for this task from the ECEC sector and policymakers is evidence of its value. At the same time, the breadth of issues that require exploration, and the breadth of data available to explore them, is also evidence of its challenge and complexity.
AERO is uniquely positioned to work in partnership with ECEC stakeholders to connect and catalyse improvement in how Australian ECEC data are used. The Productivity Commission’s 2016 report on the National Education Evidence Base detailed the challenges in Australia’s early childhood data architecture; including the quality, comparability, granularity and localisation of early childhood data. The Commission recommended a new national evidence institute to ensure that both school and ECEC data are accessible and used to inform policy and practice (Productivity Commission 2016). AERO was established to fulfil this role.
Partnerships are key to better use of ECEC data, to support and amplify data linkage and analysis efforts that are already underway. Mapping these efforts in this report, and identifying priority questions for analysis, is the first stage of AERO’s ‘early childhood data project’ (see Figure 1). Next steps will involve analysing the conditions that boost early learning and development, sharing that analysis with sector and policy stakeholders, and collaborating to strengthen the ECEC data architecture.
This report also aims to inspire others to pursue opportunities to use ECEC data, either by accessing insights from existing initiatives, or undertaking their own analysis against priority topics. Coordinating ECEC data use around this shared research agenda will help insights and discoveries to be better connected and shared, building a stronger evidence base to benefit everyone in the sector.
Appendix 1. Summary of consultations
The success of the ‘early childhood data project’ depends on collaboration from a broad coalition.
While stakeholders expressed a diversity of views and experiences, there was clear consensus that AERO’s project is responding to an urgent need for analysis of the experiences and outcomes of vulnerable children and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, within the service system, and enablers of learning and development that can inform evidence-based responses.
We will collaborate at each stage of the project with ECEC sector leaders, policymakers and researchers to ensure we are investigating questions that are relevant to our stakeholders and address the most pressing needs. We will seek to communicate findings in ways that are timely and readily accessible and join up efforts aimed at building a stronger ECEC data architecture, working in ways that are complementary and accelerate progress towards the application of evidence in policy and practice.
Appendix 2. Enablers of learning and development for children
with a language background other than English
This appendix outlines the first analysis that AERO will undertake, in partnership with the First Five Years project, to explore factors affecting learning and development for children in a priority cohort. It represents the first of a series of data analyses to be undertaken as part of AERO’s ‘early childhood data project’.
evidence (or education evidence)
Evidence is any type of information that supports an assertion, hypothesis or claim. There are many types of evidence in education, including insights drawn from child or student assessments, classroom observations, recommendations from popular education books and findings from research studies and syntheses. AERO refers to two types of evidence in its work:
- research evidence: This is academic research, such as causal research or synthesis research, which uses rigorous methods to provide insights into educational practice.
- practitioner-generated evidence: This is evidence generated through practitioners in their daily practice (for example, teacher observations, information gained from formative assessments or insights from student feedback on teacher practice).
Data is information that is collected and analysed in order to produce findings and/or to inform decision-making. Data can be qualitative (for example, teacher observations or quotes from students) or quantitative (for example, student test scores or attendance data).
context (or contextual factors)
Context is the social, cultural and environmental factors found in research settings. Taking context into account in research studies is important because context can affect the outcomes of research (i.e. evidence generated in one context may not necessarily apply to a different context). Evidence is most relevant when it has been generated in a context similar to the context in which it will be applied. Examples of ‘context’ may include location, demographics of research participants, or the level of organisational support for the particular approach being researched.
research (or types of research)
Research is ‘the creation of new knowledge and/or the use of existing knowledge in a new and creative way so as to generate new concepts, methodologies, inventions and understandings’ (Australian Research Council, 2015). There are many types of research. For example:
- exploratory research involves investigating an issue or problem. It aims to better understand this problem and sometimes leads to the formation of hypotheses or theories about the problem.
- descriptive research describes a population, situation or event that is being studied. It focuses on developing knowledge about what exists and what is happening.
- causal research (also known as ‘evaluative research’) uses experimentation to determine whether a cause-and-effect relationship exists between two or more elements, features or factors.
- synthesis research combines, compares and links existing information to provide a summary and/or new insights or information about a given topic.